Iraqi general election on Jan 30

BAGHDAD: Iraq on Monday decreed a general election early next year that is expected to be a key test of popular support for the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"At the request of the speaker of parliament, the Supreme Court has fixed January 30, 2010 as the date for the next legislative elections," deputy speaker of parliament Khalid al-Attiya told AFP.

The last parliamentary vote in Iraq, on December 15, 2005, was largely boycotted by Sunni Arabs, resulting in an easy victory for Shiite parties which formed a ruling coalition under the United Iraqi Alliance.

The decision to hold fresh elections for the 275-seat chamber was not without controversy, however, as some MPs demanded that the legislative term be extended, which would have delayed the poll by several months, Attiya said.

Parliament chief speaker Iyad al-Samarrai had to ask the Supreme Court to intervene to resolve the issue.

"There were some members of parliament who wanted to delay the elections," said Ezz al-Din al-Dawla, an MP with the Sunni alliance the National Concord Front.

"I think they did this because they feel that they have not done well in their work ahead of the elections, so they need to re-organise themselves," he said.

The decision to hold the election came after allies of Maliki under the State of Law of Coalition won a resounding victory in a provincial vote on January 31 that gave the premier a popular mandate.

Just over half the eligible voters cast their ballots in the largely trouble-free elections that were a test of the country's progress since the US-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein from power six years ago.

A stable legislative process is seen by the United States as crucial to the fledgling democracy's future as the American military prepares to withdraw troops from cities next month ahead of a complete withdrawal by 2011.

In his first visit to Iraq as US president, Barack Obama last month emphasised the need for strong institutions as well as the importance of elections.

This year's provincial polls, held in 14 of the country's 18 governorates, elected council members for a four-year term to manage local spending and select provincial governors and their two deputies.

Voting for the local parliament in three Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq is on July 25, while a date for the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk remains to be determined.

Maliki's State of Law list, with 126 seats, won the highest tally for a single list from the 440 contested, and appointed governors and provincial council leaders in Baghdad, Basra and Diwaniyah south of the capital.

His list also appointed governors in the mostly Shiite provinces of Karbala, Wasit, Muthanna and Maysan, as well as the council leader in Najaf.

Maliki and his Dawa party did not stand in the elections but instead campaigned vigorously for candidates under the State of Law Coalition banner.

When Maliki was selected as premier by parliament in May 2006 he was seen an unknown and weak, but his standing has grown as he has pushed a secular agenda in response to the sectarianism that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2007.

Last year he won plaudits for his tough stance in negotiations over a key security agreement with Washington that will see US troops leave the country by the end of 2011. He is also credited with stabilising security in Iraq.

However, Maliki has come under criticism from Sunni Arab quarters for failing to live up to promises to help their militias integrate into the armed forces and the government.

He is also under pressure to resolve major policy snags between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq over territory and the sharing of oil revenues.